Their Heads Belong in the Clouds

KENT — At a national competition this month, the skills of the Kent State University Precision Flight Team will be tested.

In one event, pilots will have to drop a 2-ounce container into a 55-gallon barrel from 200 feet in the air. For another, they will have 30 minutes to plan all aspects of a 100-mile flight. Teams are expected to come within 10 percent of the estimated fuel burned and as close as possible to their planned time.

“In nationals,” says team co-captain Brian Myers, junior aeronautical flight technology major, “they get it down to the seconds.”

Myers led his team to Kent State’s first-ever victory at the regional competition this year. It beat out four other universities, including Western Michigan, which won the last 18 competitions, Myers says. Landings have become a specialty of the team because instructors cement strong fundamentals, he adds.

“The people are great,” says Myers, “it’s a real close-knit family.” Myers says he gets nervous before the events, just like competing in any other sport, but the team is always there for support. “It’s not really stressful, but there’s pressure to do good, even if it’s all inside,” says Myers. “I get butterflies just like being in a race or track.”

The team’s family-like structure helps foster a collective sense of teamwork and dedication. Myers says the team practices air events most of the day on Saturdays and ground events almost every night of the week. Myers competes in a precision-landing event where pilots attempt to land a Cessna 152H in a box roughly the size of a football field. Competitors are given a score based on where they touch down relative to a flour line on the runway. In the power-off version of the event, team members cut the power in their planes to fabricate a possible emergency situation.

“You get the bug to fly and you just can’t get enough of it.”

Myers also competes in a ground event where pilots have about 50 minutes to complete a myriad of complex calculations focusing on topics such as air speed and wind correction. They use an instrument that resembles a slide rule. Myers would trade his for wings any day. So would team coach Timothy Palcho.

“I love teaching and helping students to reach their goal of becoming a pilot,” says Palcho, who has been a chief flight instructor at Kent State since 1998.

Born and raised in Kent, Palcho says he developed an interest in aviation in the 1980s. His wife was a pilot first.

“I went flying with her and just got hooked,” says Palcho. “It’s like a bug, you know? You get the bug to fly and you just can’t get enough of it.”

Palcho has sky-high expectations for his team at the National Intercollegiate Flying Association’s Safety and Flight Evaluation Conference. He hopes Kent State finishes in the top 10, or even five. Palcho says the team plans to debut a new plane there, a refurbished 1968 Cessna 150H perfect for landing events. The plane, named “The Flying Deuce,” was purchased with a donation of nearly $67,000 given to the College of Technology last fall by Calvin Carstensen and his wife, Nancy. Carstensen, who is in his late 60s, began taking flight lessons at Kent State in June 2007 after Nancy was diagnosed with cancer. She survived.

“Out here, we’re one big happy family,” says Palcho, who knows all his students by first name. Only “The students never get any older, I just do.”

-Jeremy Nobile is a senior newspaper journalism major at Kent State and a copyeditor with the Daily Kent Stater.

“While I have never been airborne, the camaraderie at the airport is infectious. I felt instantly welcomed. I also had the privilege of learning about the Flight Team’s prestigious ‘Diamond Club.’ Experienced pilots instinctively duck and dodge airplane wings inside the hangar. While taking notes, I almost walked face-first into one aileron at least twice. Feeling I had successfully avoided the all-too-familiar branding of a newbie pilot, I proceeded to walk out of the hangar with my head sunk in a notepad. While coming toward the last plane in my way, the little diamond holes of the aileron connected between my eyes. ‘That’s why some people are members of the Diamond Club,’ Palcho said. ‘But no one really wants to join.'”

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